Possible To Have Both Fashion And Fairness?

Many people are buying new clothes for Spring. But is the appetite for cheap clothes endangering workers? Tell Me More looks at lessons from the fatal garment factory collapse in Bangladesh.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. So we're finally feeling spring in our part of the world. Spring is the season of new beginnings. And for many people, those new beginnings involve new clothes. Spring shopping sprees are big business for the fashion industry and you can see why it's tempting, especially those frothy, inexpensive, seemingly disposable spring and summer togs.

But there's also growing concern that the American appetite for low-priced clothing is putting workers around the world in danger. It's been almost a year since the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured hundreds of others. The five factories housed there manufactured clothing for a number of popular European and North American brands. Since then, activists and policy officials have focused on every step of the supply chain to try to improve labor standards in the global garment industry.

The International Labor Organization - or ILO - is the United Nations' agency that's been responsible for coordinating and mediating many of those efforts. With us now is Guy Ryder. He is the director-general of the ILO. He's in Washington for the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group, and he was kind enough to stop by our studios here. Thanks so much for joining us.

GUY RYDER: Thank you for the invitation.

MARTIN: You know, the collapse has been described as a wake-up call for nearly everybody involved in the global supply chain. So would you first please reminder our listeners of what happened there, for those who may not remember? And also I wanted to ask if you see it that way as well - as a wake-up call.

RYDER: Well, what happened - what happened on the 24th of April of last year was this building, Rana Plaza, which houses a number of garment factories, simply collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers, most of them women. And it was an alarm call, a wake-up call, I think, for the whole world. And yet, you know, it wasn't the first accident like that. Just a few...

MARTIN: No, it wasn't. It wasn't.

RYDER: No.

MARTIN: So why do you think this one has had such an impact?

RYDER: Well, you know, I just think it was the size of it. I mean, in December of the year before, we'd had over a hundred people killed, also in Bangladesh. Around about then we had two further major accidents with loss of life in Pakistan.

And, you know, if there's one accident this recalls, it's the accident that took place 101 years before at the Triangle Stirtwaist Factory in New York which changed, I think, the approach of U.S. labor policy on health and safety. And my feeling is that Rana Plaza can have that same effect, but on the global scale. And that's what we're working towards.

MARTIN: I want your more about what those efforts are, but I did want to start with one detail. It's that some of the clothing companies claim they didn't even know that their products were being manufactured at Rana Plaza. And a lot of people find that hard to believe. Is that possible that they didn't really know?

RYDER: Well, you know, as curious as it may seem, I think it is possible. I think it is possible. I think it is possible, and that tells us something about the nature of global supply chains, doesn't it? That buyers here in the United State may not even be aware of the factories, of the locations in which garments eventually sell are being made.

And that really does beg the question, doesn't it? Of well, what are the responsibilities of the people right at one end of the supply chain, those who actually market the goods that you and I go and buy in the shops?

MARTIN: So what are some of the things that have changed since then?

RYDER: Well, we decided that it was necessary to act at two levels after Rana Plaza. One is, and there's no substitute for this, you have to go into Bangladesh. You have to work with the government. You have to work with the employers, and you have to work with the worker's organizations.

And one week after Rana Plaza came down, we'd sent a mission into Bangladesh, and we had brokered an agreement to react at the national level. And that really had four elements to it. One was the inspection of all of the buildings, housing factories in Bangladesh

MARTIN: Inspections by whom?

RYDER: Well, by - in fact, it's a Bangladesh technical university which has the expertise. We're funding and helping them do that. People are going in, engineers are going in, and seeing if these buildings are safe to be in and safe to work in. That's number one. Number two, you know, we have to change labor legislation in Bangladesh.

That really was inadequate in many, many ways, including the limitations it placed on the rights of working people to organize. You know, just think of this. The workers going into Rana Plaza that day, they knew the building was dangerous.

MARTIN: They knew?

RYDER: There were big cracks in the wall. They pointed them out, and they were told, nevertheless, to go to work. Now if they have representational rights, they could have said, hey, this doesn't go on. No, we have to get out. Third, we had to do a labor inspection service. Effectively, there was no operational labor inspectorate in Bangladesh at the time of the accident. We're now training labor inspectors.

I think we now have about 200 labor inspectors in place to make sure these places are safe. And, lastly, and it's not the smallest thing, worker education. We have to educate workers. And, I'm afraid, we have to educate employers as well as to good practice on the ground.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're taking a look at the international garment industry. We're in the middle of the spring shopping season, and we're speaking almost a year since the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh which killed more than 1,100 workers and wounded many, many others.

Our guest is Guy Ryder. He's the Director General of the International Labor Organization. Now there is an argument - and this is an argument that continues in even more developed economies and is actually going on right now - that this industry is providing jobs that otherwise would not be there.

And that however well intended efforts are, anything that raises the price of these items is going to deprive some people of work, work that they do need. And I'd just like to ask, what's your response to that?

RYDER: I agree with half of that, and I disagree with the other half. The first thing to say is there is absolutely no doubt that this industry in Bangladesh is vital to the country's development. You know, there are nearly 4 million workers working in the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh.

It's the second biggest producer of garments, after China, in the world. Now 4 million people, mostly women, most of them young women, are making a living. Bangladesh has brought down its levels of property in the last 20 years from about 56 percent to around 30 percent right now. And a large part of that is a result of this industry. So, you know, we don't want to shut this industry down. We want to make it better.

MARTIN: Well, I am certainly interested in what role the consumer could play in this. You know what I mean?

RYDER: I understand.

MARTIN: We have this same debate in the West. We certainly...

RYDER: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Have this debate in the United States. It's going on right now - questions around pay equity, for example. There's a very...

RYDER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Lively debate in the Congress right now about this whole issue of pay and how workers should be paid. But then other people say that is the task of their representatives in that country to determine what working conditions are appropriate for their citizens. And I'd like to ask what's your response to that?

RYDER: I get the point. And of course, levels of wages, for example, will vary between Bangladesh and other countries. But, you know, what the ILO, my organization, brings to the story is a set of international standards, which are adopted by the global community, which are agreed to be fair for everybody.

Nobody, no government can claim that it's justified to send their people to work in circumstances which could be a threat to their lives. So there is national responsibility. There's no doubt about that. But there are certain standards that all of us have a right to be respected.

MARTIN: No, the question - the question is what role does the international community have to say that you can say just as a general kind of human rights issue apart from national rights? But the question is what constitutes safety in a particular context? What does that mean, and who gets to decide that?

RYDER: Yeah. Well, I...

MARTIN: Yeah.

RYDER: ...Think we can and not sort of sitting here in Washington or sitting where I work in Switzerland, but on the ground in Bangladesh. And that's why we started with the Bangladeshis. We have an agreement from the government, from the employers, from the workers as to what constitutes fair and decent conditions.

MARTIN: Are conditions better now? I mean, a year ago...

RYDER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Like, it's been a year...

RYDER: Well...

MARTIN: ...But how would we most know that?

RYDER: Well, let's start with wages. When Rana Plaza came down, minimum wages in the Bangladesh, ready-made garment industry were the lowest in the world - $38 a month - $38. They are now over the $70 mark. So they've gone up remarkably. And no, Bangladesh has not lost its competitiveness. It's not lost its market share because of that rise in wages. Secondly, since the beginning of this year, 127 trade unions have been established in the industry, company by company.

Whereas, I think in the previous year, only a handful had been established. So the rights of workers are being better respected. We are inspecting the buildings to see that they're not going to collapse, that there won't be a repeat of this performance. The job's not finished, but it's ongoing.

And the labor inspectorate is being trained. These are good things. We're also working to compensate the victims, the survivors. We've set up a trust fund, which is being contributed to by industry, by buyers so that those victims will not go without compensation. You can't compensate for a lost life, but you can give people the means to carry on.

MARTIN: And who's paying for that?

RYDER: The industry.

MARTIN: What - and by the industry, you mean...

RYDER: Buyers...

MARTIN: People who...

RYDER: ...Bangladesh industry, the government, the companies sourcing in Bangladesh, the retailers sourcing in Bangladesh some of whom have contributed. Also, the Bangladeshi Manufacturers Association and the government, which has its own legal responsibilities.

MARTIN: Contributions are voluntary?

RYDER: They are voluntary. Some countries have decided to accept responsibility on a legal basis. There's one company in particular, but on the whole, the overall is yes these contributions are voluntary.

MARTIN: Final thought here. And it's a rich topic, and we really have just scratched the surface. But if you care about these issues - workers' conditions, the conditions under which these items are made - what should you do?

There are those who argue now that people should really turn their backs on the lowest priced clothing because the lowest priced clothing, in their view, cannot be made without cutting these kinds of corners.

And so their view is live with less, buy less and shoo these lower-priced brands because they say it just isn't possible. And other people say, well, that's absurd because, going back to the beginning of our conversation, you're just depriving people of an opportunity to work. What's your take on this?

RYDER: Well - I mean, firstly, I absolutely agree with you. Consumers have an enormous influence and potential to make a difference here. And I'm sure the vast majority of the buying public would want to buy goods that they can be sure have been produced in conditions we can all consider acceptable.

MARTIN: How do you find that out? I mean, it's not like - you know how some - you know, certain food items advertise themselves as fair trade, and they advertise that as part of their branding.

RYDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: How does one find that out?

RYDER: Well, one would have to go and look at the websites. One would - it's publicly available information. But I agree, it may not be generally known. But the fact is here is a voluntary initiative by the International Labor Movement, International labor federations, trade union federations and over 150 buyers saying we commit legally to the following courses of action.

So it's on the road. I agree with you. I think that the Rana Plaza tragedy, 'cause that's what it is, does have the potential, as we said at the beginning of our conversation, to be a wake-up call, actually, to be a game changer in the management of global supply chains. I think that's what people want. I think that's what the workers want.

And I also think, as you've indicated, it's what consumers want. So we've got a make that chain link together strongly. It's a beginning of a long road, but I think it's a really important first step.

MARTIN: Guy Ryder is director general of the International Labor Organization. He was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Guy Ryder, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RYDER: Thank you.

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